Last update: 12 July, 2011.
Disclaimer. Mining reclamation plays out very differently in different parts of the world. It runs the gamut from serious, progressive efforts at ameliorating ravaged landscapes and living conditions to thinly veiled PR stunts aimed at distracting from the continuing rape of the land. To take an interest in reclamation is not to condone the relevant mining practices or make light of their environmental impact. Just as looking into water cleanup doesn't make you a stooge of the chemical giant upstream, looking at mining reclamation doesn't automatically make you a stooge of big coal.
It is mid-June, a little past 4 a.m. Soft rose-colored light flows from the eastern sky. The sun is still below the horizon. The air is moist and calm and filled with the voices of hundreds of invisible larks. I leave behind clouds of hungry mosquitoes as I descend from the grassland into the bowl of the former mine. Trees, buildings, wind turbines, and smokestacks slowly disappear behind rising dunes and mesas.
The brightening sky turns the dirt's murky gray into blue, red, and green pastels. It's hard to tell what its true colors are. Even the coal dust is perplexing: is it brown? blueish? purplish? The scale of things would be hard to gauge too, were it not for the occasional animal or tire tracks trailing off into the distance. Hare and fox are regulars here, and the wolf is making inroads. I know where I want to set up my tripod and have to hurry if I want to be ready to catch the play of the first sun rays on the hilltops. The magic will last only for a minute or two. It is difficult to imagine that in a few years' time this place will be the bottom of a lake.
The landscape is in transition. The holes left behind by the mines slowly fill with water; the flat stretches are replanted with fast-growing trees or, in some cases, declared nature reserves and left to their own devices. There are experimental fields where grass varieties are selected for their adaptation to desert conditions (purportedly with an eye to markets in China and the Middle East); there is even a vineyard.
Plant and animal species that have been largely squeezed out of Europe's intensively managed and densely populated areas can find new habitats here. The recolonisation is helped by the fact that much of the post-mining land is off-limits to humans for long periods of time, often decades, until the ground is deemed sufficiently settled and safe for public use. Some recolonisation is only temporary: an island that has, for some years, been a protected breeding ground for rare seagulls will soon be submerged by rising waters.
The lakes are meant to become tourist magnets. Some are already in use, but it will take time for tourism to fill the economic void left by deindustrialization. The water quality varies; for the most part it is good for swimming, but often the acidity is too high for non-human forms of life. This can have its advantages. Germany's summers have been setting new heat records almost every year of the new millenium. The lakes around Berlin respond with massive algae blooms that make swimming disgusting exactly when it is most desirable. Meanwhile the Lausitz lakes, a short car or train ride away, remain crystal-clear. This begs to be turned into a marketing ploy: what's needed is a prominent swim team named “Spreewälder Gurken” (Spreewald Pickles -- a nationally known specialty that derives its name from a nearby forest criss-crossed by a network of streams fed by the river Spree). I would be delighted to license the idea.
Under East-German communist rule, recultivation practice fell woefully short of good intentions and legal requirements. Decades of neglect made subsequent cleanup and land amelioration very difficult and expensive and severely limited their scope. Recultivation can be done much more effectively and efficiently by integrating it into the mining process instead of tackling it afterwards.
For example, in an active mine, the excavators performing the first cut can be coordinated with the spreaders at the depleted end of the mine in such a way that the top soil taken away at one end gets deposited topmost at the other end. One can even improve the poor soil often found in the Lausitz by mixing top layers with specifically chosen deeper deposits. Moreover, it is easier to shape the terrain and solve hydrological problems while large earth moving equipment is on hand. The landscape left behind by currently active mines is therefore much more amenable to future use as farmland, forest, or biotope than the legacy of GDR mining.
The new landscape interweaves with the old; the new lake is but a stone's throw away from the old estate park. For decades, the old park had to suffer from the encroaching mine depressing the water table. Now that the mine is gone, the rising water gives the park a new lease on life. At least one park, Fürstlich Drehna, owes its very survival to the collapse of the coal industry in the early 1990s. The excavators had already begun to chew away at its periphery.
Planners and visionaries try to exploit these proximities where they can, using the charm of the pre-industrial to peddle the industrial legacy, and occasionally the other way round.
Listen to the park.
The connections between the old estates and industry go beyond spatial proximity. The cast iron pavilion behind one castle was made by a famous foundry whose rise and fall tracks that of the mines. The castle a few miles away has been in the hands of various bourgeois entrepreneurs, not the nobility, for centuries.
The most magnificent park, Branitz, hosts a landscape attraction that is oddly reminiscent of the dirt piles in the mines. In 1856/57, after his journey to Egypt, Prince Herrmann von Pückler-Muskau had a pyramid built as the burial site for himself and his beloved ex-wife Schnucke. One afternoon, my wife and I stood admiringly before his work. I told her about the prince's unconventional exit, which entailed having his body dissolved in sulphuric acid. It was his way of reconciling the Catholic ban on cremation with his distaste for the prospect of being eaten by maggots.
"Not so", an elder gentleman interrupted my speech. Only the heart was dissolved in sulphuric acid; the rest of the body was dissolved in quicklime. The resulting sludge was then poured into a zinc coffin, which was placed inside an oak coffin. The biographers, the gentleman explained, aren't reliable in these matters. Just recently, a scholar who should know better located the couple's remains on a small island next to the pyramid.
Pückler's landscaping genius, independence of mind, and notorious extravagance make him the ideal patron saint for the monumental task of land reclamation.
Birds and Formula 1 training on reclaimed land
Cicadas and wind turbines